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The genesis of this essay is in my experience as a teacher. Some years ago, I noticed that most of my students were not responding predictably to two of Shakespeare's tragedies. In fact, they were finding Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra untragic. In discussing these plays in class, and in contemplating them before and after class, I began the difficult process of trying to clear my mind of all preconceptions. About each play, I asked myself the following question: does this play create in me a tragic response to its characters and situations? To avoid any further mystery, I will say now that eventually I came to the conclusion that Macbeth does and Antony and Cleopatra does not. And then I wrote an essay about Antony and Cleopatra that sought to demonstrate, by emphasizing how Shakespeare chose to end the play and, in general, by examining the choices he made, especially about departures from his sources, that in re-telling the story of Cleopatra and Antony Shakespeare was taking a potentially tragic story and making it as untragic as possible. ["The End Crowns All: Shakespeare's Deflation of Tragic Possibility in Antony and Cleopatra," English, 26 (1977), 99-132.]
In addressing now the topic of how Shakespeare begins his plays, I will be exploring the question of what Shakespeare does at the very beginning, given a story that is potentially tragic, to get his spectators prepared either to respond tragically or to have a more detached, ironic response. I will be asking what contexts for later audience response Shakespeare creates in his opening scenes. More specifically, I will be considering the assumptions and expectations that Shakespeare creates for the spectator at the beginning of a potentially tragic play to prepare the spectator for the tragic or, alternatively, for the ironic reactions that should follow.
At this stage at least in my consideration of this topic, I am working on the assumption that the opening of a play by Shakespeare ends at the conclusion of the first scene in which the central character appears. To me, this definition, although arbitrary, seems reasonable and useful. Another general observation that I should offer now is that, in making comparisons among various plays by Shakespeare, I have come to the tentative conclusion that the openings of the tragedies are quite different from the openings of the comedies and the histories. I note especially that in the tragedies the central figures are never on stage as the play begins. If we can leave aside King Lear, since Lear, as usual, provides special complexities, we see an interesting pattern:
In Macbeth, 115 lines go by before the central figure speaks.
In Coriolanus, 164 lines.
In Othello, 185 lines.
In Hamlet, 239 lines.
By way of contrast, in that problematic, not so tragic Troilus and Cressida, except for the 31-line Prologue, Troilus has the first line. And in Antony and Cleopatra, similarly problematic and untragic if my students and I are correct, the two central characters enter at line 10 and begin speaking at line 14. It seems that in plays through which Shakespeare intends to create a tragic response in his spectator he needs time before the entrance of the central character. The most obvious reason behind this need is that there is so much about the character he is about to depict that a spectator is likely to regard as wrong, or weak, or just plain bad.
In fact, in most of Shakespeare's tragedies, a spectator may easily decide that the tragic hero deserves what he gets. In explaining why they do not respond tragically to Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth, my students focus on the extreme moral weaknesses of the title characters. It seems to me, however, that they are being strangely selective. Shakespearean tragic heroes are never heroic in an oversimple way. They must, by definition, be subject to serious error, and all of them can be blamed for various kinds of bad behavior. So my students are right in noticing that Antony is very weak, even ridiculous, and that Macbeth is a ruthless murderer. But what about Othello, with whom they do sympathize, who murders his wife because of a handkerchief, or Hamlet, who kills Polonius because he has hidden behind a curtain, who has his two best friends killed because they dare to be taken in by the evil king's trickery, and whose brutal treatment of the woman he loves drives her to her destruction? It seems that, at the beginning of a play that he wants to evoke tragic feelings despite the faults of the hero, Shakespeare needs some initial time and space--to set a mood for sympathy, to establish the existence of larger forces that capture individual human beings, and thus make their lives tragic and their plays tragedies. In other words, at the beginning of a play that he really wants to be tragic, Shakespeare needs time to depict forces in the world of the tragic hero that seem sufficiently difficult to overcome that the spectator will sympathize, will be prepared to identify.
That Shakespeare's vision in Troilus and Cressida is basically ironic rather than tragic has long been evident to many. Perhaps the earliest evidence of this understanding of Shakespeare's intentions is the moving of the play from its intended position among the tragedies in the First Folio to its final position between the histories and the tragedies. In this play, our focus is immediately on the central character. After the brief Prologue, which does not appear in the 1609 quarto version, and which makes no mention at all of the two title characters, the play begins with Troilus speaking to Pandarus. Before we hear about Troilus from anyone else, we see and hear him. And his first line--"Call here my varlet, I'll unarm again"--sets a tone of derision, of lack of interest in overreaching, that is totally appropriate for the cynical play that follows.
We should note that the choices that Shakespeare made in opening this play were especially crucial because he had avail able to him two existing views of this famous love story that were very …